Hawke’s Bay prides itself on good food and wine, pristine art deco buildings and having two Countdown supermarkets right across the road from each other. Alex Casey spent a weekend in the region to see just how much of it she could see.
As an Aucklander, one of my all-time favourite things to do on the weekend is to leave Auckland. Away from the often miserable people and the terrible traffic, my chest stops feeling quite so tight when I can actually see the stars at night. Stepping into the crisp night air in Napier, I inhaled deeply without fear of encountering a deep hit of one of those musky perfumes everyone has that I can’t afford. I was free.
Relishing the unfamiliar billboards on the way to our hotel, I was overjoyed to see The Hits with Adam and Megan (who are they?!) and ‘SHEEPSKIN FACTORY CLASSIC NEW ZEALAND’ which could have done with a comma. We were on a 48 hour mission to see as many iterations of Hawke’s Bay as we could – be it the Bordeaux of New Zealand, the fruit bowl of New Zealand, the art deco capital of New Zealand, or the Countdown capital of New Zealand.
With only one weekend to see it all, it was a tall task. Especially because my partner Joe, who you might describe as a 30 year-old as set in his ways as, say, an ancient mariner who hasn’t interacted with society for half a century, was refusing to try any wine in Wine Country. “I will throw up,” he threatened, digging his heels in before we had even landed. That night, over a six course “chef’s choice” menu at Bistronomy, I got to work eroding his resistance to the finer things in life.
All soft lighting and fancy wood accents, I felt welcome in Bistronomy thanks to the equally terrified-looking couple on a date next to us. She ordered a lemon, lime and bitters and he ordered a whiskey and coke, stunned to discover that it came with a free slice of lemon. These were my people. The waitress came over and I panic-ordered a gin and tonic, making a weird joke about how that’s what a flapper in the 1930s would order.
I have since learned that is both historically inaccurate and just a really unfunny thing to say.
Tell you what, there was no joking about the dinner that followed, starting with a single delicious squid tentacle, speared with a tiny gold sword, atop a bed of stones. It was, frankly, Chef’s Table in 4D. “When I saw the tentacle I wanted to puke in my mouth,” Joe mused, “but then it was really nice.” He would have similar revelations throughout, from “that was a nice blob” (a quenelle of cauliflower purée) to “I like that yellow stuff” (their coined ‘Tiger Milk’ ceviché).
As we walked off our extravagant dinner beneath the uncanny pastels of Marine Parade and, two or three more not-depression-era gin and tonics down, I was feeling extremely wistful and twee. Proper Owen Wilson Midnight in Paris sort of stuff – attempting to jump on the pink sound shell stage and swinging off the lampposts like Gene Kelly. I wasn’t even embarrassed – it wasn’t like I was ever going to write about it or anything.
We collapsed into our Anna Pavlova suite at the Masonic Hotel (pavlova? no thanks, I simply couldn’t eat another bite, ha ha ha), honoured to snore the night through in the same hallowed halls as the Queen, Mark Twain, Jean Batten and, as I would later find out, my dad on his first LSD trip in the 1970s. That’s just history, baby.
The next morning we were up early for a bike ride along the water to Ahuriri, stopping for coffee and a photo next to the historic duo landmark: COOL CATS ice-cream and HOT CHICK chicken. Cruising down the boardwalk, a kindly older woman showed me, a stupid townie, how to properly use the bell on my bike. Another went for an icy dip, cheered on by her family and friends. We stopped to take photos on the most impressive rocks I’ve ever seen. Album cover? Don’t mind if I do.
Our next set of wheels was an 81-year-old car, driven by John Versey, a kindly gent from the Art Deco Trust, who can pull off one hell of a fedora. He invited us to dress up in vintage garb before telling the story of Napier from pre-colonial days, to the devastating 1931 earthquake that led to the whole city being rebuilt, to the eventual opening of New Zealand’s only Art Deco Supré store. We stopped off at the National Tobacco Company building and unfortunately, cigarettes became cool again.
There was one attraction that caught my eye, one which wasn’t on the itinerary but certainly had a giant stuffed Moa outside it. O’Possum World came highly recommended to me on social media, a free taxidermy attraction at the back of a possum-stuffs store that covers all things Opossum. Let me tell you this: you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an impassioned taxidermy Possum choir sing ‘On the Road Again’ by Willie Nelson.
I clearly wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for Opossum World. “Algud brutha” a message in the guestbook read. “Mad weird innit” said another.
We grabbed a delicious raspberry donut from Mister D’s before heading out to Te Mata Peak. Okay, we also made a special drive-thru lunch stop at New Zealand’s only Art Deco McDonald’s, for the culture. After a 30 minute drive upwards through fiery autumn leaves, we met Ike and Robert of Waimarama Māori tours. Despite the weather turning to howling gale and sleet, the pair were more than happy to continue their tour from the warmth of the car.
The next hour was easily one of the best hours I’ve ever spent confined with total strangers in a moving vehicle. Robert regaled us with stories of his great, great grandfather, Waimarama Chief Harawira Mahikai, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 with his own distinctive sign. Instead of following suit with ‘te tohu o te Rangatira’ (the mark of the chief), he chose to sign with ‘te tohu o te tangata’ – the mark of a man.
The tour ended with us at Waitangi Regional Park, where the Treaty had been brought to local shores, standing in the middle of a celestial compass used by ancient waka to navigate the seas. The rain cleared and a rainbow took form as Ike explained how his ancestors used the stars to find their way home. A light shower began as we sang a karakia to finish the tour, and I have never been more grateful to those raindrops for concealing my blubbery tears.
Because there’s nothing quite like yarning to some locals to get a real sense of a place. Later that night at a Food and Wine Classic (F.A.W.C) event in Hastings, we got another delightful dose of the humans of Hawke’s Bay. The Hard-Hitting reds event at Bareknuckle Barbeque had long, shared tables and clusters of wine bottles at each end, the idea being that you would chat to each other about the wine and the five courses of red meat as the wine-makers and chefs sauntered around.
Truly, I have never felt more like boring media scum than sitting with a surgeon, an engineer, a guy who used to make Formula One cars and a woman who breeds German Shepherds. But the greatest character of all was Jimmy Macken, the head chef of Bareknuckle. “I am anti-foodie,” he told our table. “I like simple food – food that your family would make.” He also drank beer all through the red wine event, which seemed like an extremely cool flex.
The guy had earned it, though, because the food was, to borrow a phrase, “out the gate”, all the way from the reverse seared steak to the lamb neck pie. A melty beef stew matched with the world’s smoothest mashed potatoes set our table alight with questions. How did he make the mash without the smallest suggestion of a lump? He leaned over, grinning, as if he was telling me a state secret. “Guess what? It’s instant mash because we are… trailer park trash.”
His revelation spoke to a theme that became increasingly clear over the course of our time in Hawke’s Bay. Do not fear the fancy facade of the glitzy eateries and wineries, because beneath them are hilarious, humble people who couldn’t be further from elitist snobs.
The next day we met Kerry of Prinsy’s tours, who further alleviated all our guilt about being wine dunces. “The region prides itself on three things: good food, good wine, good people,” he explained, “but you’re never wrong when it comes to wine – it’s all about what you like.”
We travelled back up Te Mata peak to have another look at the view, 400 metres above sea level. With the rain and wind long gone, we were able to explore the peak, rifling through piles of fossils in the limestone, once nestled deep under the sea. Our photographer lead us out to his favourite spot for wedding and engagement shoots against a backdrop of jagged hills. Ha ha, imagine if Joe proposed to me here, we laughed.
At the summit, Joe stopped and bent down against a backdrop of breathtaking jagged hills. On one knee, he gazed up at me, opening his palms to reveal… a selection of old broken shells. “Are these good?” he wondered aloud. It was a jape. In Napier. A Japier, if you like.
In an attempt to hoover up the cobwebs from the previous night’s red wine event, we visited the Hawke’s Bay Farmers market next. In time with the soothing hangover harmonica, Joe walked faster than I’ve ever seen him walk to The Bacon Sandwich Co. Waiting in line, we bumped into James, a cool Californian cat we had met the night before, cradling a giant box of fresh produce and newspaper-wrapped meat from the Waipawa butcher stand.
As soon as we realised just how many free samples were available, we feasted like the world’s fanciest sparrows. A thimble of black pudding? Don’t mind if I do. A mandarin segment for your nerves? Rude not to. A shard of walnut brittle? Charmed, I’m sure. I bought a technicolour array of macarons from Benjamin at Monsieur Macarons and chased it down with some hot sauce and truffle infused olive oil from The Village Press. This was living.
Shockingly, the luxury was far from over. Under Kerry’s gentle, non-judgemental tutelage, we got to know more about the wines of the region as he drove us between vineyards. The hot days and warm nights make for great Chardonnay, Syrah and Bordeaux blends, one of the many facts I never thought I would ever know, let alone remember, let alone write in a piece. Oh, 2013 you say? A great year for wine, I’d say. We stood under the gargantuan, $80 million facade at Craggy Range “It’s like Minecraft but… Winecraft,” Joe whispered.
Inside the fortress, we were dwarfed by giant barrels, gathered in high counsel to decide whether or not we ant-people should be drowned by their fruity nectar. I felt dizzy staring at the ceiling, a cathedral on a spaceship in a galaxy far, far away. One floor down, their offspring snoozed in the quiet, thick air. I was suddenly overcome with the urge to lie down on the cool stone floor in the silence. I was also inexplicably becoming quite thirsty indeed. Those barrels really don’t know how good they have it.
In what was good news for my unquenchable thirst, the last two pit stops on Prinsy’s tours were both wineries. We were welcomed to Church Road by a delightful woman named Denise, who popped a bottle of their Blanc de Blancs – we can’t call it champagne but we can say it’s just as yum as champagne – on arrival. Glass of bubbles in hand she hurriedly took us through their facilities, from another procession of majestic barrels to the underground concrete vats that ex-owner Tom McDonald used to make wine during the 1920s.
Denise has worked at Church Road for 16 years but has never started work before 11 am because that would interfere with her pilates. “I just love it here,” she fizzes. “I love the wine, I love the people, 99% of the people who come through here are on holiday and people are so much happier when they’re on holiday.” She poured us a glass of Church Road’s ‘Gwen’ Rosé, explaining its romantic backstory in dedication to Tom’s late wife. “I just love talking. If I didn’t like talking I’d be better off as a librarian.”
Her effervescent passion for wine was balanced out by our next laid back expert – Gaston at the Urban Winery. Kerry was keen on taking us there for their Chardonnay tasting, seemingly on a personal crusade to Make Chardonnay Cool Again. “Look, it got a bad rap in the 90s because most of it tasted like urine and looked like urine,” he says, as we whizzed past various bustling bars and eateries by the harbour. “But not anymore. You’ll see.”
Kerry was right. With the effortlessly cool Gaston behind the bar, joking that he “only knows about beer and coke,” (he knows everything about everything) we were taken through the Chardonnay renaissance, one splash at a time. I watched, mouth agape as Joe, a man who, less than 48 hours earlier, had threatened a public vomiting if he drank so much as a droplet of wine, described the “creamy” “oaky” “round” flavours as well as, I’m not kidding, the “mouthfeel”.
Our final attraction of the trip, one which I insisted we squeeze in before our Last Supper at Pipi in Havelock North, was a trip to the aquarium, for old time’s sake. I have long coveted the National Aquarium of New Zealand’s viral Good and Naughty Penguin of the month awards, and I wanted to see the good and bad water birds for myself. With 45 minutes until closing, we not only had the whole place to ourselves – but I had a bit of a Chardonnay buzz on.
The naughty and good penguin sign did not disappoint, even if there was only one visible penguin out to play (Tommy, of course, goodie two shoes). We traced the penguin hall of fame, before heading into the comforting womb-like darkness of the Kiwi enclosure. Sitting in the quiet, staring into the abyss for over seven minutes, I was ready to leave when I heard a promising rustle. There she or he was! A Kiwi! An enormous fluffy unit who waggled its butt as it pecked optimistically at the window – inches away from my face.
For the second or maybe third time on the trip, I started to weep.
Delivered from the aquarium by way of travelator through plastic tube surrounded by furious sharks, my favourite way to travel, we rewarded ourselves with a pizza feast at Pipi before heading to the airport. First opening in the South Wairarapa, where I grew up, in the early 2000s, Pipi was a much-needed splash of hot pink in grey, grey, Greytown. Now in Havelock North, it still bursts with the exact vibrancy and warmth. Instagram also exists now, and I don’t doubt that the hot pink shabby chic interior is treated to many a filter.
We devoured two of Pipi’s famous pizzas – I had funghi and Joe had half pollo and half margarita, because I wanted those too. Maybe that’s actually a better commitment to a person than an engagement, I thought smugly to myself. By candlelight, I romantically scrolled back through the photos on my phone. A phenomenal time-traversing journey from 1930s art deco glamour, to the pre-colonial days of celestial navigation, to our dystopian near-future where the world is run by possums singing Willie Nelson covers.
I’ll take any of them for a weekend visit but, luckily, Hawke’s Bay has them all.
This content was created in paid partnership with Hawke’s Bay Tourism. Learn more about our partnerships here.